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Who Will Step Up as Poker's Next Great Ambassador?
Chris Moneymaker wears a baseball cap and sunglasses.
Sammy Farha wears a black suit jacket and an open-buttoned blueish-white shirt revealing a hairy chest and gold bracelet.
One looks the part; the other you'd think has wandered into the room looking to buy wallpaper before realizing he's in a casino.
There's $2.5m in actual, real cash on the table. Moneymaker has 5,690,000 in chips and Farha has 2,700,000.
Moneymaker checks his cards first; he has 5♦ 4♠. Farha looks down to see J♥ T♦. Farha bets 100k; Moneymaker calls.
The flop is J♠ 5♠ 4♣. Farha has top pair and Moneymaker has a nicely disguised bottom two pairs.
Moneymaker taps the table. Farha bets 175k. Moneymaker stares across the table. His heart must be beating out of his chest. He pulls some chips from his stack and starts riffling them.
“I'm gonna raise,” Moneymaker says, before making it 300k to play.
"OK I go all-in, let's go," says Farha quickly.
"I call," says Moneymaker, even quicker.
Farha looks dejected. Moneymaker throws his sunglasses to the felt, takes off his cap, throws his hand down face up in front of Farha and flexes his right bicep involuntary.
Farha looks like he has swallowed his cigarette. He pulls another one out of thin air and puts it into his mouth, unlit.
Moneymaker swings his baseball cap around and puts it back on his head; his hands stuck either side like glue.
Moneymaker paces backwards and forwards, occasionally glancing back at the table to see if the dealer has done his job. Farha sits in silence, chewing on his cigarette.
Moneymaker rivers a full house and becomes the 2003 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event Champion. In the commentary booth Lon McEachern says, "The 27-year-old stepped out of a virtual poker room and in a very swift and unlikely manner is on top of the poker world."
Co-commentator Norman Chad says, “This is beyond fairy tale. It’s inconceivable.”
People Like an Easy Life
Chris Moneymaker, whether he wanted to or not, would become the most unlikeliest of poker ambassadors.
But what is "an ambassador?" Here is the Oxford English dictionary description:
"A representative or promoter of a specified activity."
In the case of this article the ‘activity' that needs representing or promoting is poker. And there is an argument that Moneymaker did a great job.
He showed the world that the working class could qualify for the $10,000 WSOP Main Event, playing for a pittance on an online poker room, and win $2.5m.
There's a reason the lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America and drags in over $70 billion in sales per year. People like an easy life.
They want to click some buttons, or buy a lottery ticket, and win life-changing sums of money. Moneymaker showed that it was possible. He defeated 838 other players to win that title.
The following year players flocked to sites like PokerStars in droves and Main Event attendance rose to 2,576. Then it soared to 5,619, and then 8,773 before the world of online poker changed forever after the introduction of the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gaming Act (UIGEA).
All because of Moneymaker. Or was it?
I Got It Wrong
Daniel Negreanu is arguably the most notable ambassador for our game. He has won more live tournament dollars than anyone alive or dead.
He has a documentary on Netflix. He is the figurehead of the largest online poker room in the world. And he even cameoed in a crappy X-Men movie.
Two years ago Negreanu finished 11th as he tried to do exactly what Chris Moneymaker did in 2003 -- win the WSOP Main Event. It was THE story of the year.
As an underdog myself I desperately wanted him to reach the final table, only to get his ass handed to him on a plate by a nail salon owner competing in his first poker tournament.
What? Come on. I am a storyteller. But the more I think about the moment when Joe McKeehen eliminated Negreanu on his way to becoming the champion, the more I think I got it wrong.
Negreanu is huge and his influence on our game is undeniable. There is only one more platform available to him that could extend his reach further than he could imagine and that would have been for him to be the champion of the world.
As I think deeper into this ambassadorial poker thing, three things keep popping into my head:
1. Charismatic, trustworthy person
3. WSOP Main Event
Daniel Negreanu nearly had all three. And so did Chris Moneymaker.
It's the Working Class You Need
You cannot represent or promote poker if you have the personality of a brick. And I don't believe you can promote poker if you don't know how to.
I was listening to the Phil Galfond interview on the Joe Ingram podcast. I am a huge Galfond fan. A few years ago, Negreanu pointed him out as THE man who had everything in his arsenal to become the next ambassador of poker.
I disagree. Galfond is one of the greatest players of his generation, if not all-time, and is a dead cert for a seat in the Poker Hall of Fame.
During the interview with Ingram, Galfond opened up and said that networking is not his thing. He prefers the space just beyond the limelight. He is comfortable. He is safe. Other things in his life are more important than poker.
He is charismatic. He is trustworthy. The poker community adores him. He is an excellent writer and his philosophical and honest portrayals of the poker community are amazing.
And he is also a great teacher. His RunItOnce training site is the most talked about in the industry.
His new RunItOnce poker site might expand his legacy even further. But Moneymaker appealed to the working class. RunItOnce appeals to the elite.
As PokerStars, and every other online poker network in the world has recently demonstrated, to have a successful and thriving poker community it's the working class that you need.
Galfond is too high born. We need someone who appeals to the nose pickers, apple pickers and graveyard diggers.
One for the Basement Kids
People like Jason Somerville. Somerville has become famous by growing an army of individuals from North of the Wall.
Galfond speaks to the best poker players in the world. Somerville speaks to rest.
Both of them are charismatic and trustworthy. Both excellent players.
But Somerville is an exhibitionist, a showman, and a man for the people. Galfond is a man for the people but in his own quiet, inimitable way.
Galfond can reach out to people with a well-timed email chain via RunItOnce or a great blog post on his personal website.
Jason Somerville appears on national television fighting for the future of online poker.
And who gave Somerville that platform?
PokerStars is That Iron Throne
I don't believe the role of ambassador for poker is all about attracting recreational players to our game. Chris Moneymaker did that better than anyone.
For me, an ambassador of poker is someone who can take on Moneymaker's roles and responsibilities but also manage to promote poker as a trustworthy sport. And a fully regulated and licensed sport in countries where that's currently not the case.
Here’s where the irony comes in. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you will know that everyone is killing everyone because they want to sit on the Iron Throne. They see that position as the catalyst to rule the Seven Kingdoms.
In poker, PokerStars is that iron throne.
I don't believe you can effectively become an ambassador for poker unless you have the full weight of the largest online poker room in the world pushing you so far towards the moon that you feel like passing out.
And yet PokerStars are not great at giving off the trustworthy vibe. It’s a dilemma and one I don’t believe will be solved until the company returns to private ownership, or some new age radical thinker takes over at the top of Amaya and starts to realize the power is in the people and not the bottom line.
Phil Galfond doesn't need PokerStars but without their backing he'll never reach the people we need him to so he can become a true ambassador of poker. No one will, no matter how hard they try.
And it's such a shame that PokerStars have tarnished its brand for the sake of profit. It does so much right.
It has the best software in the business. It has the liquidity. It's very noticeable in the philanthropy world. It has relationships with the world's top sports stars. And it operates arguably the most proficient live tournament series in the world.
The Most Powerful Tool of All
PokerStars has many ways of promoting an ambassador like Jason Somerville. But it doesn't have the most powerful tool of all.
The WSOP Main Event is our world championship. The person who wins that event has, for a year at least, the opportunity to reach millions of people via mainstream media.
And this is why Daniel Negreanu winning the Main Event two years ago would have been the perfect storm for poker.
He is charismatic, trustworthy, has the power of PokerStars at his back, wants to promote poker as a bonafide sport, fights for regulation around the world, and he would have been the world champion.
The WSOP doesn't sponsor players; it knights them. But it also gives them wooden swords and takes their horses away. This decision hurts poker. It prevents the game from gaining bigger exposure.
In the past week PokerStars announced significant changes to the way it will operate its live poker arm. Outside of the WSOP, the European Poker Tour (EPT) is the most sought after title in poker.
The numbers don't lie. The EPT is huge, people love it, and it wasn't a surprise to see Stars admit that it had outgrown its boundaries and that changes were afoot.
The PokerStars Championships was born. Watch out WSOP.
Perfect Storm Brewing Again?
I believe the PokerStars Championships can be bigger than the WSOP in the next decade. The WSOP does a great job at what it does but it always seems a little rushed, harried and on a budget.
The EPT has always been classy, slick and well-oiled. PokerStars has always thrown money into making it as successful as it is.
If I am right, and one day a $10,000 PokerStars Championship Main Event with thousands of players qualifying online via PokerStars replaces the WSOP Main Event, the winner will be given the greatest possible chance to be a great ambassador for poker.
Charisma and trust can be learned. The platform that PokerStars provides and the enhanced media coverage of being poker's one true champion are something else entirely.
And perhaps that's why PokerStars hasn't stepped up and sponsored a WSOP Main Event player in a long time. I don't think it's seen anyone who can learn how to be charismatic and trustworthy enough to take our game to a whole new level.
And this isn’t a fairy tale. This isn’t inconceivable. More 27-year olds can step out of a virtual poker room and in a very swift and unlikely manner reach the top of the poker world.
And he or she can use that privileged position to help regulate and promote our game all over the world. You just need the perfect storm of charisma, trust, PokerStars and the title of champion of the world.